It’s 9:30 PM on a warm evening in June, and my father is yawning in the bright circle of light surrounding my parents’ kitchen table. I’m wearing an ill-fitted T-shirt the color of the spring fields beyond our house, and I’m staring out the darkened windows and seeing nothing but our reflection: me seated with no make-up, chin cupped in my palm with one elbow on the green tablecloth; my father, leaning back across from me, silver-haired and tired.
“Did you milk this morning?” I asked, meaning: “How many hours have you been awake?”
This is a normal question. I’ve long since lost count of which morning is his to wake up at 2 AM or which morning is my uncle Jeff’s, but the question still is always on my mind, charting the status of the man who, at age 59, still works harder than me.
Dairy farming runs in the blood, he says. Our farm is on the western edge of Shippensburg and was purchased by my stern great-grandfather Edward sometime around World War I. After that, the farm was bought and run by Edward’s third youngest boy Walter and his wife Anna, who gave birth to three daughters and two sons that could run the farm solo by the time Daddy was 16. Today, the farm is still run by my dad and my uncle Jeff and is home to 230 milk cows, one of the first carousel-style milking parlors to be installed in Franklin County, and 425 acres of wheat, barley, alfalfa, and corn. I used to sit to Daddy’s left at mealtimes and hold his hand for the prayer, tracing the 425 acres in his calluses.
“Could I take you out to breakfast tomorrow for Father’s Day?” I ask, and Daddy barely manages a smile.
“Breakfast? Sure, that would be nice.”
The next morning, I drive us into the Shippensburg Select Diner that sits overlooking the square. “Let’s sit near the window. I like to see the world moving,” says Daddy, looking slightly rested.
“So do I,” I say. I lead him to the booth in the front corner, but he remains standing, watching a tractor and disk-bine being driven up King Street. He laughs. “That’s Tom Elliot,” he says. “See, I know people already.”
Breakfasts always make me think of him, whether I want to or not: dippy eggs with toast and mint tea, pancakes and crisped bacon. Early mornings on the farm have a certain way of spiking hunger at a speed more violent than the sunrise, and so we both know my mother’s repertoire of breakfast foods by heart: French toast made from homemade bread, Cream of Wheat with brown sugar and raisins, scrambled eggs stretched with a dash of tap water. I have been off the farm a decade, but I still cannot smell bacon in the morning without being conscious of whose early-morning labor I butter onto my bread.
The waitress brings us coffee, and we both order omelets, the one breakfast food my mom rarely makes. Daddy begins to talk about the roofs that the farm just replaced due to the same storm in the spring of 2011 that downed a tree one block away from my Harrisburg apartment; he explains the adjustments made to the loafing barn to increase air circulation, and he takes a call from someone about a new truck the farm may want to buy.
He’s a solid businessman, keenly aware of circumstance and open to change. I realize I am not. I cling to the familiar as if it were the branches of my favorite maple tree; I revere tradition like the first picking of summer sweet corn. The farm taught me the solidness of the seasons, the regularity of milking rhythms that thump through the pumps in the milking parlor, but life by definition is different when it hinges on the measure of the rainfall or the storms that do or do not pass you by.
“It sounds like you’ve done a good job at teaching,” Daddy says, and I look at him. “Peggy’s told me what your students said.” I didn’t exactly intend for this conversation to be about me. He’s chewing on toast slowly and without jelly because we both know it’s inferior to my mom’s homemade strawberry jam. “You’re going to love grad school. It’s everything you’re interested in. You’re curious, you’re interested in new people, new things, new ideas. It’s going to be great for you.”
I notice suddenly that he’s wearing the same worn-blue sweatshirt that he worked in when I was in high school. In my Harrisburg apartment, I still have an old pair of sneakers that I threw away then dug right out of the trash and a hoodie that I purchased in 1999 with the threadbare cuffs, and I save these things in case I have a pasture that I need to run through or a flowerbed I need to dig. But at this point in my life, I have no fields or flowerbeds. I don’t even have a yard. I am ashamed of myself, but my father is not.
“You have to keep trying because you never know what you might be,” Daddy continues. I realize that he’s also talking about himself — the man who left college to plant fields, who carried the burden of the family’s land, who joined the board of directors of Adams Electric Cooperative and is now serving as board president. I remembered when they asked him to lead — he was hesitant. He is a man comforted by open fields and by silence, the same silence that was always between us when we milked together or went out for ice cream at Diffy’s or made butter-soaked air-popped popcorn to watch movies with. But he went forward.
During the early years as board president, I helped to edit his annual meeting speeches and applauded for him when he stood on stage, looking crisp and regal in a new suit. I now meet him sometimes in Harrisburg for dinner after his legislative meetings where neither of us smell like fresh air or open spaces, and we talk about his travels with Adams Electric to meetings in California, Costa Rica, Texas. He listens as I speak about teaching high school and traveling to France, Trinidad, and Chile, and he asks questions that have nothing to do with milk prices and mastitis. He is my father of the cornfield, but he carries with him the sense that, in each moment, he is where he needs to be. Now he’s looking at me across the table with eyes as blue as cloudless skies, overlooking the fried potatoes that I cannot finish, and giving permission to do the same.
And I wonder if he knows all the things I’ve never told him: that when I wake up early to write I still think of him, or that when I got into the University of Pittsburgh he was the first person I called, or that my curiosity in the world is only possible because of the wide open pastures beyond our farmhouse, strongly anchored yet rolling forward toward the mountains.